Traditional vs Digital Techniques in illustration

Julia Groves offers some observations on blending time honoured printing methods with modern computers. 

As a printmaker and illustrator I have developed a rather eclectic method of making images, utilising both traditional and digital media to create images which retain a ‘hand-made’ quality. 

I consider myself rather fortunate as I had a traditional art education in the (almost) pre-digital age of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s.Training first as an Illustrator at Cambridge School of Art, working almost purely in traditional non-digital media such as paint, collage and printmaking, typography was hand-rendered and we used the library for all our research, no Google back then! My love/hate relationship with printmaking continued as I pursued a Post-graduate Diploma in Fine Art printmaking at Brighton University, where I discovered that traditional methods of printmaking are both time-consuming and frustrating, but there is also a wonderful sense of achievement in the hand-made.

Isabelle Vandenabeele illustration from Een Griezelmeisje ('A Horrorgirl' written by Edward van den Vendel, published by De Eenhorn 2005)
 The recent revival in traditional printmaking techniques and the rise in popularity of beautiful children’s books with a ‘hand-made’ aesthetic may be viewed as a reaction to computer generated illustrations and the digital book. As much as we embrace the digital world, we are seeking the tactile familiarity of the books of our childhood memories as a counter point to the screen. 

Traditional illustration seems to have come full circle, from falling out of favour to photography in the early 1990’s to being superseded by CGI and vector graphics as digital technologies evolved. There are now more opportunities than ever for a broad spectrum of traditional and digitally created images (or better still a combination of the two) in picture books. 

I admire Illustrators such as Marc Boutavant, who creates all his work digitally, yet his images have a beautiful mid-century auto lithography aesthetic, combining retro colours and charming animal characters. Belgian artist Isabelle Vandenabeele creates beautiful illustrations combining traditional wood cuts, which are then scanned in layers and coloured and composed using Photoshop. John Lawrence works in a similar way, his intricate wood engravings are again assembled using digital techniques, this method was utilised to great effect in his illustrations to Treasure Island (Walker Books, 2010) and more recently Wayland written by Tony Mitton (David Fickling Books, 2013).

A wood engraving by John Lawrence (© John Lawrence/Walker Books)

Although I now regularly use Photoshop as part of the process of making illustrations, I also have a genuine respect for traditional methods and this will always be the starting point of my work.
Printing from traditional wooden fonts in the letterpress studio at Cambridge school of Art
The final text, scanned and digitally coloured using Photoshop
I have long been fascinated by the idea of printmaking without a press and combining various techniques into one illustration. I enjoy making mono-prints, transfer drawings and hand-cut block prints, all of which can be done with very basic equipment. I use water-based inks for speed of drying.

Monoprints are created by rolling a very thin layer of printing ink onto a smooth surface (such as plastic, glass or even a table top), next place a piece of paper over the ink and draw on the paper. The pressure of the pencil transfers the ink onto the paper, creating a beautiful ‘feathered’ line. Interesting effects may also be achieved by painting printing inks directly onto the clean surface with a brush, laying paper on top and taking a print by applying gentle pressure with your hand. Different effects can be achieved by wiping ink from the surface with a rag, or drawing into the inked areas.

Making a Monoprint

Printing blocks can be created by cutting shapes from sponge or rubber and gluing onto a wooden (or mdf) block. These can be inked with a roller and pressed onto paper, rather like a rubber stamp. Linocuts are also easy to create at home without a printing press. Use a linocutting tool to carve your design onto a piece of lino, ink with a roller, place a piece of paper over the inked lino and apply pressure by ‘burnishing’ with a spoon.
Rolling ink onto a linocut
I usually print everything in black ink or sometimes I’ll cut just shapes out of black card, scan and then colour and assemble the final illustrations in Photoshop.

Printing from handmade relief blocks

The final illustrations, coloured and composed digitally using Photoshop
The important aspect of this process for me is the sense of retaining the original traditional starting point in the finished digital illustration.

I also recommend Martin Salisbury’s books (Illustrating Children’s Books, Play Pen: New Children’s Book Illustration and Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling)

All images © the artists and publishers.

Julia Groves works as a lecturer in Illustration and graphic design, but is also currently in her final semester on the MA Children’s Book Illustration course at Cambridge School of Art.

Follow her blog here.


  1. Thanks for sharing this insight into your approach julia. keeping that spark of life alive throughout your work is so important.

  2. This is fabulous. Made me want to go and try it. Thank you, Julia. More process articles like this please, Words & Pictures!

  3. :-) Love it thank you Julia I love using old and new and this has given me some ideas to try. Keep it coming!

  4. Thanks for thiis Julia and I share your love of Marc Boutavant and Isabelle Vandenabeele's work! On topic, for anyone else trying out both old and new, here's a way to use Channels (rather than Magic Wand) to preserve keeps the irregular shading of print or any b/w trad technique when colouring artwork in PSD

  5. For me the fascination of printing like this, is being able to duplicate something and that it will still have a less finished look than modern methods of printing also that the duplication isn't exact so each print will still have its own set of peculiarities.
    Fascinating thank you, Julia

  6. I love the tactile quality of traditional print and would love to give it a go, but haven't been anywhere near a printing workshop since Foundation course in the late '70's! This is a really great introduction Julia, you've inspired me!

    1. Go for it, John! Would love to see what you come up with.

  7. Thanks everyone for reading the article and I'm so glad you've found it informative and maybe inspiring!! It's been lovely to read your comments :)

  8. thank you for an insightful article


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